Thursday, June 30, 2011

NYT Debates "War on Cars!!! Arrrgghhh!"

This began with the New York Times running a column and accompanying photojournal discussing all the various ways European cities are combating the impact of cars upon their cities. It reads earnest and genuine enough, but the synopsis alone seems like fodder for the "they're taking our guns AND our cars" crowd, like a parody piece of what a parodied New York Times might run.

It is actually worth the read along with the understanding that Europe, decades ago, realized that their cities were the baby and the impact of cars were the bathwater. So these policies began decades ago in various cities across the continent and the success achieved warranted and garnered copycats, as all progress across the globe is wont to do. There was no larger "anti-freedom" agenda other than they realized that car-based congestion was doing bad things to cities (wrecks, pollution, parking, yadda yadda), the chief generating platform of innovation, progress, and well, when done right, well-being and happiness. The hardship and blight we Americans associate with cities is completely independent of them but directly tied to the policies we chose to pursue that many European cities also did, but backed away from long ago as we doubled down.

The critical issue is that we simply can't afford to subsidize the cars, the car industry, the infrastructure for them, nor the energy to run them on to the levels we were once afforded. This is undeniable fact and the quicker we get used to the idea, the easier the various policy changes will be. It was super cool when the federal government made it rain dollars and "jobs" for highway construction, then when the maintenance bill came due, it was time to shut off the lights.

So with these issues at the forefront, the NYT then trotted out the usual panel of suspects to summarize their solution to the immense problem facing American cities, and in many ways state of mind as many of us feel entitled to gas at certain prices and free roads and free parking and convenient drive-thrus and an IV drip of corn syrup, in a whopping 2-300 words. I link and summarize:
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In Europe, The Times's article says, “Urban planners generally agree that a rise in car commuting is not desirable for cities anywhere.” And therein lies the biggest difference between European and American city planning: American planners still have to pay attention to real people. And real people like their cars and the mobility it provides.
There's so much deceit and filth to this point that I feel the need to take a bath. In his column, he calls mobility a RIGHT and to that point I would agree with him to some extent. A right? as in explicitly spelled out in the constitution, not really. But there is mention of the pursuit of happiness. And towards the pursuit of said happiness relies the need for mobility to get to places. Of course, Staley, the libertarian/tea party-ish representative at the NYT table thinks that means the government (which he probably wants to blow up, figuratively) should provide mobility and that only form of mobility means roads. So what if the government can not afford those roads to the extent that we've built them and propose to continue to build them? Somewhere in this alternate version of reality (that we actually are all sleepwalking thru) all cars, gas, and roads are free, but there are also no taxes. Does not compute.

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I generally agree with Glaeser that the point isn't to obstruct drivers, but to also make them pay their own way (since the taxes on all pay for the half of roads that user fees don't pay for, therefore carfree city dweller like myself is subsidizing your supersized superhighway. You're welcome). Furthermore, the key ingredient in the idea/innovation combustion engine of cities is not just mobility but the speed and rate of the connections. At which point I ask, which/who is more mobile? The person who must drive a few miles to anywhere? Or the person with all/any forms of transportation at their doorstep, including density/proximity of amenities and services (which become scattered in car-dominated form)?

However, he suggests copying London's congestion taxes and various other levies. I would counter that with suggesting that in order to gain the needed density and proximity, here in the states, we actually have to cut into the convenience of driving in order to gain the speed of mobility availed by walkable urbanism.

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Zimmerman/Volk urban economists and demographers take their time getting to the point and barely say much of substance before concluding that, "Millennials will save the day by desiring to live in urban neighborhoods." Unnecessarily oversimplified. Knowing them and their work, I'll assume the best bits are left on the cutting room floor unfortunately. Yes, Millennials are seeking urban experience and retiring boomers are downsizing -- and I suspect will be losing ability/desire to spend the waning years behind the wheel. However, their point only gets at the demand side of the equation. Unless we drastically alter policy (which is ideally demand-led thru representative democracy) to allow for the proper construction of living/working cities, the supply will never come to fruition. And a big part of that is the corruption inherent in the government planning/spending/private road building realm, hence the ideal part of policy process.
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Alex Marshall, who has written one of my favorite books on urbanism, writes that we have to properly prioritize transportation modes in the various types of places recalling the transect (dense places to least dense places). In that reference, he (and I) would suggest that a proper choice in neighborhood type is in order. Meaning, that there has to be a range of densities and the transportation planning, design, and funding choices should be catered and appropriated to allowing those types of places to happen.

From thereon, we can play a part in the self-organizing dance of choosing neighborhoods by the emergent personality within them. However, Marshall is only able to get out one point and that is in centralized urban places, cars are in fact destructive to those places and should have the least say in what happens there. This is straight out of the European city playbook, since cars will always find their way, but if they're allowed to dominate will squelch out all other forms of travel.

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Ellen Dunham Jones hearkens back to well, forever, in that roads are platforms for life to exist. All kinds of street life and activity. Whatever goes goes. And various forms of activities, including saving time or spending time, are all available to our primary urban arteries, not just for cars alone. And when this is allowed, development actually wants to interface with the vitality rather than defend themselves with a barricade of parking.
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Lady from the National Parking Association goes all Donald Shoup upside your head and declares market rate parking is what's in order. Of course, there is no mention of caps upon that supply, which would allow for still market based parking just super cheap, but whatevs. What she didn't get to say that Shoup would, is that pricing should be based on 85% capacity at any time. This somewhat alludes to limiting capacity in that any parking operators would want to limit parking supply in order to maximize profitability. Still, not exactly surefire way of preventing parking from eating away at neighborhood fabric like a spilled vat of acid.
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The idea that a city like New York could be made wholly compatible with the car looks increasingly antique, a paved-with-good-intentions fever dream now as obsolete as the idea of tower-block housing projects. As Michael Frumin, a transportation expert, once observed, if the morning subway commute were to be conducted by car, we would need 84 Queens Midtown Tunnels, 76 Brooklyn Bridges or 200 Fifth Avenues.
That comparison gets right at the heart of the cost disparity and deficit for maintaining all that extra infrastructure. We goin' broke.
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